This is Kim Weir. I live in Paradise, here in northern California, and I love it. No one has been more surprised by this than me. I grew up in Chico, the college town just down the hill, and like many flatlanders I helped to perpetuate local prejudices about the place. When I was 16 and still knew everything, I’d dismiss Paradise as little more than local headquarters for the John Birch Society—which it was, back then.
There is still cranky conservatism around town, and worse, but everything and everyone else too. So even a low-rent writer with too many critters can feel right at home. Plus, Paradise has about zero pretension, which, sadly, Chico can no longer boast. So, I love it here. There, rather, given that right now I’m living down the hill again. But when I moved up the hill, some years back, to escape the summer heat and too-hot home prices, I got such a kick out of that chamber of commerce bumper sticker: “Paradise: A Little Cooler Than Chico.” Dang straight! It really is.
Or, was. It’s hard knowing what Paradise is now, even harder, what it will be. With every new telling of our collective horror story, that mad dash through flames, fear, and gridlocked roads; every newscast panning, again, over street after street of smoldering ruins; every shocking new total in the Camp Fire count of the missed and the dead; that cool, piney, panic-free Paradise fades further. With luck, these new memories, so unwanted, will burn through fast, white-hot, and turn to ash too.
Luck. I am one of the lucky ones. I’m alive. I got out safely with six chickens, two dogs, and my dad’s old cat. Plus, I had a welcoming place to go once I made it down the hill. I’m a homeowner, too, so there was help with even the initial chaos of dislocation, financial help. And, my little piece of paradise, all 595 square feet of it, still stands. Mixed in with amazement—no other house survives on my side of the street—there is guilt, knowing that, given the war zone all around, the bombed-out landscape, the nearness of so much final loss.
Built in 1945, my little house was the first one on my street, I’ve been told. It gracefully stood up to the tests of time long before I moved in. Whoever built it, so solidly, right after World War II, knew what they were doing in other ways, too, orienting it at an odd angle to the street but the correct one for passive solar. Thin winter sun through one picture window heats most of the house. Shade from a massive blue oak protected the same window from heat, come summer, at least until a decade or so ago, when that leafy giant finally lost its footing and thundered to ground, taking out my neighbor’s garage on the way down.
My house still stands. But: I have lost my home, like everyone else in Paradise. Being a refugee from Paradise is not about losing a house, all that stuff inside and out, though that might be part of it, a hugely painful part. It’s about losing home. That sense of home, of belonging in a place, which is so much bigger than the comfort of any house, the familiarity of any street.
The fire is over but home is still disappearing. Friends and neighbors are leaving. My old neighbor Corky was scooped up by her son within days, carted off to Missouri whether she liked it or not. (Let me tell you: She did not.) Katy lost her job as well as her house, so she and her husband are moving to Massachusetts, closer to family. Starting over. My sister and brother-in-law miraculously found a house to buy in Chico, starting over too.
We’re all starting over. We will find home again, even those who will never return to Paradise, this particular one. We’ll belong again, somewhere.
“Home is where the heart is,” the proverb goes. Pretty hokey, that, I always thought. But now I get it. I understand that wisdom. We will love our lives again, wherever we finally go. We will find refuge and comfort. We will go home again—because what matters most to us, what we love, is home.